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Designation Guidelines

What is a Cultural District?
A cultural district is a specific geographical area in a city or town that has a concentration of cultural facilities, activities, and assets. It is a walkable, compact area that is easily identifiable to visitors and residents and serves as a center of cultural, artistic and economic activity. The Mass Cultural Council recognizes that each community is unique and that no two cultural districts will be alike.

Who Can Apply?
Any city or town in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is eligible to apply for designation of a cultural district. The city or town is the applicant for a cultural district designation. The city or town, after identifying a specific geographic area, must establish a partnership with other organizations and stakeholders. A municipality may apply for more than one cultural district designation in its city or town, but each designation requires a separate application.

Cultural Districts Goals
The goals of the cultural districts, as defined by the legislative statue, are:

  1. Attract artists and cultural enterprises
  2. Encourage business and job development
  3. Establish the district as a tourist destination
  4. Preserve and reuse historic buildings
  5. Enhance property values
  6. Foster local cultural development

See the legislation for the Massachusetts Cultural Districts Initiative.

Length of Designation
A cultural district designation will be in effect for five years. An Annual Progress Report is required each year. A designation may be renewed for an additional five years if the district partnership has maintained compliance with annual reporting requirements in prior years, and the city or town recommits to its cultural district's work.

Cultural District Partnerships and Management
The applicant must be a city or town, and the application must be submitted by the city or town's chief elected official. A city or town municipal department is generally the contact for the district.

Prior to submitting an application, the city or town must form a cultural district partnership. The partnership must be comprised of a diverse mix of organizations and businesses that represent the shared interests of the district. The majority of organizations in the partnership must be located in the district.

At a minimum, the following types of organizations or individuals should be involved in the management of the district on a regular and ongoing basis:

  1. City or town representative/s.
  2. Local Cultural Council.
  3. Cultural organization/s incorporated in Massachusetts (arts, humanities, sciences.)
  4. 2 or more artists that live and/or work in the proposed district or an organization that represents artists.
  5. For profit creative business e.g. gallery, dance school.
  6. Local business and/or chamber of commerce.

Depending on the assets in the cultural district, and the district’s goals, a municipality may also elect to include the following types of entities:

  1. Tourism representative
  2. Historic preservation
  3. Hospitality representative
  4. Educational institutions

The partners roles and responsibilities must be clearly articulated and include a meeting schedule, terms of office and other expectations. The partnership is responsible for developing a management plan involving agreed upon objectives that: prioritizes tasks, allocates resources, establishes timelines and milestones, and provides a means to measure success in relationship to the goals set out in the application for designation to the Mass Cultural Council. It is expected that the partnership will convene on a regular basis.

The partnership may also form advisory committees, working groups, and sub-committees and so on as deemed necessary to provide support for the district’s goals made up of stakeholders within the district.

Third party arrangement: As the applicant for designation, the municipality may elect to assign the day to day management responsibility to one of the cultural district partners who will act as the municipality's agent. The partner must be in good financial standing, and have the capacity to lead the partnership. However, the municipality must be represented in the partnership.

If the day to day management of the district is assigned to a third party, there must be a written agreement between the city or town and the designated partner that outlines the responsibilities of each party. The agreement must include an exit plan for either party, fiscal arrangements, reporting and so on. The agreement should be in line with local municipal regulations and reviewed by the municipality's legal counsel prior to submitting an application.

The partnership may include cultural for- profit or not-for-profit organizations outside the geographic boundaries of the district, provided those organizations produce regular cultural programming within district boundaries. The cultural district may promote them in cultural district materials.

For advice, contact Mass Cultural Council staff.

Resolution by the City/Town
Any city or town applying for a state-designated cultural district must:

Hold at least one community input meeting so that residents, businesses and interested parties can learn about and discuss the proposed cultural district map and goals.

Following the community input meeting(s):

The city or town must pass a resolution making a commitment to establish a state-designated cultural district.

Resources for Cultural Districts
The statue that established the Cultural Districts Initiative legislation does not include a provision for grant funds or other financial rewards to communities, at least for the time being.

The Mass Cultural Council offers a variety of funding programs that might benefit the planning and implementation of a cultural district. Each program offers a combination of financial and/or technical resources to support the development of a cultural district's goals and implementation plan. Mass Cultural Council program staff is available for consultation for each program.

Other State Agency Resources
The Mass Cultural Council has identified other state agencies whose programs and services may be of benefit to a cultural district. Each state agency is available to discuss cultural district plans and to discuss whether agency initiatives are appropriate for a district's plan of action.

Some additional programs and services include: strategic community planning, marketing and promotion, historic property stewardship, way finding signage, open space programming, and economic development.

Marketing and promotion Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism
Historic designation Mass Historic Commission
Community planning Department of Housing and Community Development
Economic development Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development
Open space and recreation Department of Conservation and Recreation
Signage Department of Transportation

More details on Massachusetts Resources for Cultural Districts

To Be Eligible for Designation:

  • The applicant must be a city or town of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
  • The cultural district must have well-defined boundaries, be walkable and widely accessible.
  • The cultural district must have a concentration of cultural facilities and assets.
  • The city or town must hold at least one community meeting with adequate notice for public input and then pass a resolution making a commitment to establishing a state designated cultural district. (See Sample Resolution.)
  • The city or town must establish a cultural district partnership prior to applying for designation that will provide oversight and management of the district.
  • The cultural district partnership must develop goals and objectives, a management plan, marketing plan, and evaluation measures for the district.
  • The city or town must agree to participate in the state cultural districts signage program. A minimum of four (4) signs must be purchased. This will incur some costs. Presently, each sign costs approximately $145.

To Confirm Eligibility:

Application Process
The Massachusetts Cultural Districts Initiative has a rolling application process. There are no deadlines and the program accepts applications on an ongoing basis unless otherwise noted.
Cities and towns should assess their readiness to apply and allow ample time to complete the application as the process can take several months.

There are several stages to the designation process. Review all the requirements thoroughly.

Creating and submitting a map of the proposed district with an asset key for Mass Cultural Council review
A map of the proposed district must be submitted to the Mass Cultural Council prior to completing the online application and supplementary documents.

  • Use the online application inventory of assets to define and locate the proposed district’s cultural assets.
  •  Submit three copies of a map that outlines the preliminary boundaries of the proposed cultural district (Color maps are preferred).  Include a key to the assets and define a scale of distance.
  •  The map should clearly mark the proposed boundaries of the district as well as the location of any cultural assets. Include cultural facilities, artistic spaces, cultural activities (in and out of doors such as festivals etc.), and creative businesses.
  •  Cultural assets located outside the boundaries of the proposed district can also be marked on the map for informational purposes. Cultural district partners located outside of the cultural should also be noted.

Maps can be created by a city or town’s Redevelopment Authority, Planning Department, GIS department, or a web tool such as Google Maps.

Submit the map by mail to:
Cultural Districts Initiative
Massachusetts Cultural Council
10 St. James Avenue, 3rd floor
Boston, MA 02116

Following a review of the submitted map and accompanying materials, Cultural Districts Initiative Manager Meri Jenkins will be in contact to discuss the map, and any potential boundary issues.

Please note that in most prior cultural district designation applications the map boundaries have been revised based on the review process.

Completing an Online Application
The online portion of the application is designed as a work plan. Use the narrative section as a tool to help refine district goals and objectives, and the inventory section to assess cultural assets

Submitting Supplementary Application Documents
All items are required for an application to be reviewed. Allow plenty of time to collect all the documents.

Mail or hand-deliver the following attachments to the Mass Cultural Council in the order listed:

REQUIRED - 2 identical sets
Print and use the following as a check list:

_____ Letter of Endorsement from Chief Elected Official

_____ Copy of Resolution from City Council / Board of Selectmen making a commitment to establish a state designated cultural district (See Sample Resolution.)

_____ Master Map: Please provide a map of the cultural district. One copy should be signed by the appropriate municipal official, denoting approval of the proposed boundaries.

_____Evidence of Resources/Planning for the district using the Municipal Resources Sheet.

_____Third party agreement (if relevant): If the municipality has made a third party arrangement for the oversight and management of the cultural district, there must be a written agreement, in line with municipal regulations and reviewed by the municipality’s legal counsel, between the municipality and the organization that outlines each party’s responsibilities.

_____Audited accounts (if relevant): If the municipality has made a third party arrangement for the oversight and management of the cultural district, the managing organization must submit its most recent audited accounts.

_____501c3 verification (if relevant): If the organization with oversight and management of the cultural district is an IRS non-profit incorporated in Massachusetts, the letter confirming this status must be submitted.

_____ Official legal documentation regarding any special zoning overlays or ordinances that is relevant to the cultural district. (If relevant)

_____ Marketing materials, if relevant to the cultural district.

_____ Reports, feasibility studies, visioning results, and/or news articles that have been generated regarding a proposed district (if relevant).

Submit to:
Cultural Districts Initiative
Massachusetts Cultural Council
10 St. James Avenue, 3rd floor
Boston, MA 02116

The Massachusetts Cultural Districts Initiative staff will review the narrative and supplementary documents of the application.

Site Visit
Once the application is complete, staff will be in contact to set up a site visit to tour the proposed cultural district with Mass Cultural Council staff and a site advisor to the Massachusetts Cultural Districts Initiative on a mutually agreed date.

Please note: site visits are not conducted during the winter months of January and February.

  • The site visit has three distinct parts:
    • a meeting with the chief elected official and other municipal representatives
    • a walking tour of the proposed district
    • a meeting with the cultural district partners and stakeholders.
  • The applicant and partners should be prepared to respond to questions about the proposed district during the meetings.
  • The site visit agenda and attendees must be confirmed at least two weeks in advance of the site visit.
  • The site advisor will write a site visit report based on the review criteria and his /her observations during the site visit that will be reviewed by the board of the Mass Cultural Council. The report will be made available to the applicant after the board vote. 

Learn more about what's involved in the site visit. (PDF)

Review Criteria
Applications will be assessed based on the following categories:
I.    Management Plan
II.   Cultural Assets
III.  Creative Programming
IV.  Public Infrastructure & Amenities
V.   Marketing plan
VI.  Goals and Evaluation Measures

Final Decisions
The Mass Cultural Council staff and site advisor will make recommendations to the Mass Cultural Council board. The Mass Cultural Council Board will make all final decisions regarding state designation.

Following the Mass Cultural Council board vote, the city or town will be notified of the outcome of the application by letter, usually within two weeks of a Mass Cultural Council board meeting.

If the application is successful, Mass Cultural Council staff will be in contact to arrange a designation ceremony and media announcements. If the application is unsuccessful, staff will discuss next steps in the process for reapplication.

Reporting Requirements
An Annual Progress Report is required each year of the five year designated period. The report deadline is aligned with the Mass Cultural Council’s fiscal year (July 1 – June 30).

The impact of a cultural district is tangible and measurable. In the first year, all designated cultural districts must gather the following baseline data in the first year of designation, and yearly thereafter:

Visitors – Track number of visitors to the district
Building Occupancy – Changes in occupancy rates

You must also track data that measures the impact of the district and reflects the district’s specific goals. Examples include, but are not limited to: aggregate sales tax in the district, number of full time jobs, number of artists, box office sales, consumer surveys, and so on.

Proceed to the Online Application

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